Why “voting system”?

In the earlier entry on the BC referendum, I quoted a passage from the ballot question. It uses the term, voting system.

Yes, “voting system” rather than “electoral system”. Why? What the voters are being asked to decide is clearly what we political scientists mean by electoral system. Is there something objectionable about that term to the general public?

I do not ever use the term, voting system. However, if I did, I would probably understand it to mean the ballot format and other aspects of the process of casting a vote. I would not understand it to include how seats are allocated. An electoral system, as I understand it, is a set of rules that govern voting, counting, and allocation. A whole electoral system is assembly size, district magnitude, tier structure (if not “simple” single-tier), ballot format, and the specific seat-allocation rule. The BC proposals cover all these aspects. It clearly is a referendum on the electoral system. Yet it is officially, “a referendum on what voting system we should use for provincial elections.”

I find it puzzling, although not troubling in any sort of way. (Now, if the term starts creeping into political science, I reserve the right to object.) On the other hand, proponents of change in Canada seem to prefer to call proportional representation “ProRep” rather than PR. I can kind of understand that (“PR” means public relations to civilians). Whenever I see “ProRep” I flinch just a little. But if calling it that helps sell it, I can get over it.

‘Seat Product Model’–audio version

The audio-slides version of Li and Shugart (2016) is now available!

As previously announced, the publication details and abstract are as follows:

The Seat Product Model of the effective number of parties: A case for applied political science

Yuhui Li, Matthew S. Shugart

Electoral Studies 41, March 2016, pp. 23–34.


This paper extends Taagepera’s (2007) Seat Product Model and shows that the effective number of seat-wining parties and vote winning parties can both be predicted with institutional variables alone, namely district magnitude, assembly size, and upper-tier seat share. The expected coefficients are remarkably stable across different samples. Including the further information of ethnic diversity in the models hardly improves the estimate of the effective number of parties, and thus the institutions-only models are preferable on the grounds of parsimony and the applicability to electoral-system design or “engineering”.

Plurality, FPTP, SMP. What’s in a name?

For such a widely used and analyzed electoral system, the typical Anglo-American means of electing legislators sure has a wide range of names.

My general view is that First Past the Post (FPTP) is the worst of all possible names, aside from the others that have been used from time to time.

The main advantage of FPTP (as a name, not a system) is that it is widely understood and the apparently dominant name in numerous countries that actually use the system. It has various disadvantages, however, including being an awkward name to say in full, and an unpronounceable acronym (which I have heard even political scientists mess up as “FTPT”). It is also a little weird to have one of our major concepts be described by a term from horse racing. And, as both Nathan Batto in a recent post at his blog, and Rob Richie in a comment here in 2011 noted, in an election using this method, there is no fixed post, unlike at your local racetrack.*

I would actually prefer to banish proper names for electoral systems entirely, and describe them by their most important parameters. The preference for the rich detail of proper names suggests, as Rein Taagepera put it in Predicting Party Sizes (2007), a preference for zoology over the broad generalizations of molecular biology. Therefore, were I to be strictly adhering to my own principles, I would say the electoral system in question is M=1, single-round, simple quota. Or something like that. Not exactly a classification scheme I expect to catch on, but a vast improvement analytically over attempting to give a proper name to every combination of rules ever invented here or there. I have no idea how many times I have received a description of some bizarre melange of rules and been asked, what would you call this? I often respond by saying, well, let’s break it down into its parts and see where that gets us.** I really do prefer this over the naming game–in principle. It might be impossible to provide a few concise component-based terms for complex multi-tier systems; I am afraid proper names like MMP will continue to grace the pages of this blog and my academic writings. And if that is the case, I suppose we need a convenient proper name for the standard Anglo-American system.

Some sources, including works I like and assign in classes, use SMP, meaning single-member plurality. It is descriptive, and component based, referencing the district magnitude (“single member”) and the allocation formula (“plurality”). It has one very big flaw, however, and I recommend not using it. The letters within it are too widely used to refer to other systems or features of systems. I became aware of this while recently revising a chapter on New Zealand’s current electoral system, which is, of course, in its full proper-name glory, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). The editors of the volume advised authors to use SMP for the system otherwise known as FPTP (or in New Zealand, FPP, because, why use a letter for the definite article?). However, I just can’t see writing about the change from SMP to MMP, without confusing the poor reader to an even greater depth than various political scientists, because it logically suggests that only one aspect of New Zealand’s system was changed, S to M.*** In fact, I have heard even electoral-systems specialists inadvertently refer to MMP as multi-member proportional (as though there were any other kind), because, after all, we have “SMD” (single-member district) and we have “MMD” (multi-member district), so “MMP” must mean multi-member…, right? I guess that means logically SMP could mean “single-member proportional”, which is actually an oxymoron, but would be a semi-accurate description of a system in which a substantial share of the seats are elected by M=1, yet the overall allocation assures a large measure of proportionality. In other words SMP=MMP! What a morass!

Because of the confusion by experts around a conference table back in 1998, I drafted a recommendation to drop the acronyms SMD and MMD altogether. This recommendation appears in an appendix to the book that came out of that conference, Mixed Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? (please never forget there is a question mark in the subtitle!). In the book, we argue instead for referencing districts as single-or multi-seat (SSD vs. MSD), and I have continued to do so, to make the acronyms look less like the proper name of the New Zealand system. Of course, really, I would prefer never to use acronyms to refer to district magnitude when we can easily say “one-seat districts” or “M=1 districts”, or a system with M>1, etc. But if we must use magnitude acronyms, can we please use SSD (MSD) rather than SMD (MMD)?

So then, what of the electoral system otherwise known as FP(T)P? Well, I suppose we could use SSP (single-seat plurality). I am not sure I like it, but it avoids the confusion of SMP and MMP. Duverger called it the “simple majority, single-ballot system”. I find “simple majority” confusing, and much prefer “plurality”, while “single-ballot” is arguably redundant. He was contrasting it to the two-round majority system, and presumably also to the possibility of two round majority-plurality.

I could live with just saying “plurality system”. I think it is mostly clear, though it does refer only to the allocation rule and leaves open how many legislators (members/seats) are being elected per district. I generally understand FPTP to refer to M=1 plurality, although I think I have used it myself to refer to M>1 list plurality (which maybe I should not?). Besides, is it just me, or is “plurality” really hard to say? And I might note that Fowler’s Modern English Usage says that “plurality” should mean “many” (as in “a plurality of different names for the same old electoral system”) and that the word for “the largest” should be “plurity”.

So there you have it: a semi-serious plea for calling it the plurity system, or M=1 plurity, or SSP (single-seat plurity). Anything but SMP. And I still think FPTP is the worst name except for all the others–if one must be an electoral zoologist.

*Rob said that “top of the heap” would be more accurate, to which Bob Richards, responded:

Top of the heap — TOTH — unlike FPTP it’s an acronym you can actually pronounce. It even has an appropriately icky sound (perhaps I’m biased). Best of all, it is scrupulously accurate.

** I am certainly not always consistent, having devoted a whole thread once to a “name this system” competition.

*** Which I would otherwise understand as meaning the Size of the legislature and the Magnitude of districts, respectively.

Nationwide PR in a big country

Ukraine and the Russian Federation have represented, at various times, the only two examples I know of using a single-nationwide district with a magnitude greater than the 150 used in the Netherlands* and Slovakia. (Israel’s single district has M=120, Namibia’s M=72.) [But see JD’s comment for an intermediate example.]

As it happens, both Ukraine and Russia have used the same magnitude, 450, with closed lists, when they have had the single-national district. For Ukraine, such a system was used in 2006 and 2007; for Russia, 2007 and 2011. By contrast, in 1998, 2002, and 2012, Ukraine used a mixed-member majoritarian system (225 M=1 districts, and a nationwide non-compensatory M=225 district), as did the Russian Federation in post-Soviet elections before 2007.

Nationwide closed lists could have the effect of biasing representation towards the capital and other major cities, given the (potential) control of the lists by the central party leadership, and the absence of institutional imperative to offer regional or personalized representation. On the other hand, they could encourage parties to present candidates from even those regions where they are not strong, because a vote anywhere counts towards the party’s overall seat total, and because even in closed lists the presence of candidates from a region might signal to voters in the region that the party is responsive to their needs. In the only study I know of in the political science literature to address such questions, Latner and McGann find some bias towards the most important cities, but also an over-representation of peripheral regions in Israel and the Netherlands.

What about Ukraine? The pattern could be different in a much larger country, with clear regional divides in its politics. A blog post by Erik Herron, Univ. of Kansas, and one of my “Party Personnel” collaborators, offers interesting data on candidate and MP residency in the 2007 election.

Key point regarding 2007 winners:

Kyiv residency is dominant, accounting for more than half of all elected deputies. The Party of Regions is better represented through the reported residency of its elected deputies in some eastern areas (e.g., Donetsk) and the opposition is better represented in western areas (e.g., BYuT in Galicia). But, parties can also claim elected deputies who report residency in “enemy” territory.

Meanwhile, Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin today signed into law a return of his country’s electoral system to the mixed-member system. While the article is not explicit about the relation of the two tiers, I assume it will again be MMM (non-compensatory). Given the decline in the standing of the ruling United Russia, it makes sense that Putin would prefer a move towards a system that is both disproportional and favorable to “independents” who have local bases of support that exceed the popularity of the ruling party’s label. In this respect, it would be identical to the change in Ukraine prior to the 2012 election. That change worked strongly in favor of the Putinist forces of that country, buying them time to acquire the finest in home furnishings.

Now that Russia is moving back to MMM, and Ukraine is moving on from the Yanukovych/Party of Regions era, maybe Ukraine will go back to the pure PR system. If they ask me, I certainly would not recommend the single national district, however. Either districted PR, without too much variation in magnitude, or MMP would be my advice.

* In a very technical sense, the Netherlands has districts for nomination purposes. But for all practical purposes, it is a single district. It also allows preference voting for candidates on the list (though list ranks are more important), as does Slovakia, and as Israel does not. Russian and Ukrainian lists have always been closed, as are Namibia’s, to the best of my knowledge.

Italian electoral reform deal?

The BBC reports that the center-left Democrats and opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi have struck a deal on electoral system reforms. Such reforms are necessary as a result of the Constitutional Court having invalidated the current law.

I wonder if any readers have details. The BBC says little other than to quote Democrat’s leader Matteo Renzi as saying the new system “favours governability and a bi-polar system, and eliminates the blackmail power of the smallest parties”. And about the current system, the BBC says “The current electoral system has left Italy with a series of shaky coalitions.”

The latter is not a very accurate claim about the current electoral system, which, after all, gave the Democrats and their allies an absolute majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies despite such fragmentation that they had barely over a quarter of the vote. The deeper problem is the strong bicameralism and the fact that the Senate must have regional representation. The bonus provision–that which manufactured the Chamber majority–is applied region-by-region in the Senate, to which the government is also responsible.

Moreover, currently it seems that it is not small-party blackmail that is the real problem needing fixing (even if we assume that a regionally elected, coequal Senate won’t be changed). Even in the Senate, which is indeed divided, the three biggest individual parties combine for well over 80% of the seats, and the two biggest for just under two thirds. (This refers to numbers at the election, before Silvio Berlusconi’s party split, with the splinter supporting the government after Berluscoini withdrew support from it.) Rather, Italy’s two biggest political forces are relatively polarized, and Italian voters were deeply split into three antagonistic blocs at the last election; in fact, the Democrats likewise led the Senate vote with just 27.7%, yet won over a third of the elected Senators thanks to the bonus provisions. These are hard problems for any electoral reform to fix, unless one is willing to tolerate really extreme disproportionality. But as the results of the 2013 election show, what they have is already quite disproportional!

New Egyptian electoral system–not yet

Egypt is supposed to try again at electing a parliament early in 2014. But, based on the following paragraph from a long article at Al Monitor about the non-regime, non-Brotherhood parties, it would appear that no one yet knows what the electoral system will be:

Despite the various meetings and discussions aiming at forming political alliances, the official announcement of these alliances will not come before the committee tasked with drafting the constitution specifies whether the electoral law will adopt an individual or list system.

These parties, working within a National Salvation Front, propose a “mixed” system, though clearly they do not mean mixed-member. Here is the (not so clear) description:

The NSF parties have proposed a new electoral law, other than the individual and list system, dubbed the “free popular choice.” According to the system, every list has its own code and every member on this list has a specific code. Voters can choose the list code if they wish to vote for all its members, one specific member code or many member codes. When voters choose the list code, every member will be granted an electoral vote. If voters choose a specific member code, the electoral vote will be granted to that chosen member specifically.

The counting process will be implemented over two phases. The first phase is dedicated to the lists as a whole; all votes given to the list are counted. During the second phase, the votes given to each member of the lists are counted.

It is not clear to me whether “member” here means a party within an alliance, or if it means candidates. It might mean an open or flexible list (with multiple preference votes allowed), but it is not clear. In any case, it is just a proposal. The passage quoted has a link, but the item is in Arabic.

Of course, the Brotherhood will boycott.